Sure, the Linear Non-Threshold Hypothesis is not exactly supported by scientific evidence, and it was simply created as a “worst case” model for radiation exposure, since emperical data on low exposure was, at one time lacking. Admittedly, it can be difficult to screen out the statistical noise when it comes to verifying or refuting effects as trivial as those which LNT predicts for low exposure. Even if the model was correct, it would predict that the dangers of getting a dental x-ray would be on par with those of spending a few minutes in a smokey bar or eating a large box of french fries. Still, what data we have managed to acquire has generally refuted, rather than supported LNT.
Still, LNT does not seem to be going anywhere and many agencies have adopted it as their standard for evaluating radiation exposure. It might be said that it could serve as the absolutely worse, even unreasonably bad case for the potential for radiation’s health effects.
Some will use LNT as a means of opposing nuclear energy. Various special interests and extremists like Ernest J. Sternglass insist that nuclear energy can’t be tolerated because the effects of even the low levels radiation on the public are intolerable. Sure, even the supporters of the model have to admit that by their most liberal estimates the increased risk of cancer from living near a nuclear power plant is only a tiny fraction of a percent, but they insist that this is something that should not be imposed on the public and even one death is too many.
Okay, so lets, for the sake of argument, assume LNT is correct (which it isn’t). If we accept that this is the case, then there are a few outcomes from this. First, we will have to admit that it’s impossible to avoid radiation entirely, since it is – after all, your body emits radiation from the carbon-14 and potassium-40 in your food. Secondly, we will have to realize that there are human activities that increase our exposure to radiation and that these vary in their magnitude. Since we can’t tackle all of them, or at least, we can’t all at once, we will have to figure out what our priories should be when it comes to reducing exposure by as much as we can.
So how do we get our radiation exposure down as low as we can?
1. Phase out coal, as fast as possible and replace it with nuclear power – What? Replace it with nuclear power to reduce radiation? Indeed, that would be the first thing to do, because there is no greater source of enviornmental radiation than coal burning and that is before we even consider all the other nasty things that coal brings with it. Nuclear power produces some radiation, but the amounts are orders of magnitude less than coal. The average person receives only a tiny amount of exposure from the fuel cycle, and even those who live next door to a nuclear plant receive less exposure than from a coal plant. Since coal is so huge, we must replace it at once and do so with a source that is as low in radioactivity as possible. Gas is lower than coal, but nuclear is even lower, so that’s the most logical thing to do.
2. Eliminate nuclear medicine or place extremely tight regulations on it – Sure, when most think of the kinds of facilities that are most likely to expose them to radiation, they probably think of power plants first, but the fact of the matter is that hospitals and cancer treatment centers emit far more radiation into the local enviornment. These facilities use highly concentrated and potent radio-nucleotides for therapeutic purposes and for imaging as well. Many of the things that hospitals flush down the toilet or allow patients to go home with in their bodies are of an activity high enough to get a nuclear plant in big trouble if it were ever emitted into the enviornment.
For example, technetium-99 is a fission byproduct with a halflife of 211,000years. It’s one of the nucleotides that environmentalists complain storage sites like Yucca Mountain can’t be expected to keep under wraps for thousands of years and worse still, it’s “unnatural.” Yet when used in the form of technigas for medical imaging, patients are allowed to just exhale it into the atmosphere! Clearly this cannot be allowed.
Complete elimination of nuclear medicine would seem the best way to go. Of course, X-rays and other imaging procedures that use ionizing radiation should also be high on the list. Yet doing so would obviously cost many many lives. How can we reconcile this? In light of this, the best solution would be to hold hospitals to the highest standards possible for medical waste that could contain artificial radioactivity. They will have to suck up all that gas and filter it from the air, keep patients for months in confined lead-lined rooms until their levels return to normal and take whatever measures are necessary to keep the public from exposure. Since medical institutions suffer far far more radiation incidents and accidents than nuclear power plants, they will have to be located in isolated areas with multiple layers of barriers from the public and environment.
The consequence of this will, of course, be that therapies will be much more expensive, far less avaliable and also more difficult on patients. Getting a PET scan will involve some time away from family, perhaps being transported to a remote island and cared for by doctors behind many inches of leaded glass, touching the patient only with telemanipulators, less they get even a tiny exposure to the radioactivity.
But this is a far far more important step than addressing nuclear energy.
3. Take extreme steps to reduce radon – Sure, it’s natural, but it’s also the single largest source of radiation exposure to many people around the world. Radon occurs as a decay product of uranium. Uranium is extremely common in the earth’s crust and therefore radon is too. It tends to collect in low lying areas and can be found in many homes with a basement or cellar. In most cases, the levels are considered too low to warrant any action, but since we’re going to adopt the same standpoint that allows anti-nuclear activists to oppose nuclear energy on the grounds that it causes radiation, we must address first a source of much greater radiation.
All homes will have to have their floors sealed and have pump systems installed to pull as much radon as physically possible out of their foundations before it seeps into the living space. However, homes are not the only place these systems will be needed. What about the children? Since they have no choice where they are educated or visit, buildings like schools, libraries and other public spaces will need to be delt with first. They’ll need the most extreme measures taken to reduce radon as much as is possible.
Of course, we will need to build more nuclear power plants to power all the pumps and vacuums that will be sucking out the radon. That’s fine though, because the contribution to public exposure will be minuscule and thus this large reduction in radon will result in a huge net reduction, even given the increase from the nuclear fuel cycle. That’s also not to mention that mining uranium will mean less uranium to decay to radon in nature.
Some radon can be found outdoors, but that’s going to be all but impossible to deal with. The only potential solution: since radon is heavy and tends to be found near the ground, people are advised to wear a “snorkel” like device consisting of a breathing tube that will extend several feet into the air.
4. Tear down and bury all granite and most masonry structures – Granite contains uranium and thorium in high concentrations. Most Portland cement does too and this means that masonry buildings are a big no-no. Sure, it may be a choice to live in one, but what of the children? Children attending school may be subject to exposure from any granite used in their schools construction, any mortar used to hold the bricks together, cinder blocks and even the tile in the boys and girls bathroom! This is a far greater exposure than nuclear energy might produce, even if they live in the same town as a nuclear plant.
The answer is clearly that all municipal and school buildings made of granite need to be torn down immediately and their rubble buried. Buildings made of cinder blocks come next and then comes brick. After we complete this, we can begin tearing down office buildings and private homes. They’re a high priority too, but perhaps not as high, as people have some choice as to whether or not to live in them.
But what shall we replace them with? We could look for sources of low-uranium cement, perhaps chemically processed to remove most of it and drawn only from quarries with bellow-normal levels of uranium and thorium. Metal would be another good choice. Good, high purity, electro-refined metal should have a pretty low level of uranium or other radioactive materials in it. And since we need to do this all quickly (for the children) we’ll need to find a structure that can be built in mass. The answer?
Clearly it is the quaoset hut.
5. End the use of natural gas – No, it does not expose the public to as much radiation as burning coal, but it does expose the public to far more radiation than nuclear energy and if it’s used for cooking in the home it can be a significant source.
Not only does natural gas contain trace amounts of radioactive materials that can result in exposure by its end use, the drilling and exploration process can bring highly radioactive materials to the surface. These materials may be more dangerous than nuclear spent fuel, because unlike spent fuel, which is a chemically inert, nonsolutable, dense ceramic that is encased in corrosion-resistant cladding, these natural radioactive materials have a potentially high biological uptake and can be mobile in the environment.
6. Reduce exposure from flying – Flying is not a choice for everyone, after all, cancer patients will need to get to the hospitals that are located in the middle of nowhere and the air crew certainly don’t have a choice in flying and thus exposing themselves to dangerous cosmic radiation. There are, however, steps that can be taken to reduce the radiation exposure from high altitudes. First, aircraft will have to keep to low altitudes. Bellow five thousand feet there will be signifficantly less cosmic radiation. Aircraft can also be covered with lead foil, to further reduce radiation exposure. This will obviously increase weight, so there will be a need to use more powerful engines and reduce the capacity of the aircraft to allow them to continue to fly. It is worth it, however, because aviation is a far more dangerous source of radiation.
This will, however, result in much higher fuel consumption and given that crude oil is already prone to supply crunches, there will need to be some means of providing the massive, low-flying aircraft will need. The answer is to build more nuclear reactors to produce synthetic fuels. Sure, this will result in a tiny contribution to radiation exposure, but since doing so will allow us to keep radiation levels from aviation, a much greater source, so much lower, it will be a huge net reduction.
7. Find and isolate all consumer products that have significant radioactivity – It might seem like a trivial amount of radiation exposure, but it’s far greater than a nuclear plant would expose anyone to. If we are of the mindset that nuclear plants are too dangerous, then these items are going to be absolutely disastrous. Workers with Geiger counters will have to survey every buisiness and home and remove anything suspicious. Your grandfather’s old watch with a radium dial will need to go, as will any orange colored pottery or dinner plates from before the mid 1980’s. Many will find that their bathroom tile needs to be ripped out and granite countertops are another big one that’s going to need to come out. Even false teeth may need to be confiscated.
Once all these items are collected, they’ll have to be isolated and buried deep in the earth’s crust where they can’t harm anyone. It might seem like a big loss to those left with no counter-tops, no teeth, no smoke detectors and tile floors ripped out, but if we’re so keen on protecting the public from radiation, these have to go!
8. Ban highly radioactive foods – Another big source of exposure and far bigger than nuclear power. Sure, we may not be able to get the levels down to zero, but we can reduce them a bit. Brazil nuts are obviously going to need to be banned, because they contain radium. Areas of the world with higher than average soil radioactivity will be off limits for farming and most importantly, we’ll have to keep potassium intake to a bare minimum.
Potassium is a vital nutrient, so unfortunately, we can’t have zero, but given that all natural potassium contains potassium-40, we’re going to want to keep uptake to the minimum nutritional requirements. For this reason, bananas are going to need to be registered with the federal government, as are all other items that are high in potassium. No more substitute salt, so if your blood pressure is high, you better get used to food that is just plain bland.
In the longer term, there will need to be some better solution to eliminate as much potassium from the diet as possible. The answer is clear: eat only foods that are very low in potassium and provide for the nutritional requirements using artificial supplements that are made of isotropically enriched potassium, virtually free of k-40. Eventually, isotope separation plants will be built to remove carbon-14 and other dangerous radioactive isotopes from food.
9. Stop using aquifers in areas with natural occurring radioactive materials – Another source of exposure, and far bigger than nuclear energy is water. Much of the world’s drinking water supply comes from underground aquifers, but many of these have traces of uranium, radium, thorium and other natural radioactive materials in them. In all but the most extreme circumstances, the levels are well bellow safety standards, but if we are concerned about nuclear energy then we must be much more concerned about this and that means that the use of any water with significant amounts of radioactive produces will need to end.
Alternative water supplies can be provided by distilling sea water or pumping in water from areas of low geological radioactivity. In some cases, well water may still be acceptable, but only after it has gone through multiple cycles of filtering and distillation. To this end, we’ll need to build a number of nuclear plants to provide the energy for filtration, distillation and pumping of all that water.
10. Phase out nuclear energy – By the time we’ve tackled all these issues, we’ll have built a lot of nuclear plants, because they’re the lowest radiation means of providing the energy necessary to keep people away from radiation. However, they do result *some* exposure to radioactivity. It’s tiny, but after we’ve tackled all the bigger issues, we’ll need to address this one. Somehow we’ll need to find a source of energy that is even lower in radioactivity than nuclear energy and that will be a challenge.
Given the relative exposure, this should be of the lowest priority. Only after every granite monument has been torn down and the rubble burred in deep caverns, away from civilization, only after the last building has had an active radon removal system installed, only after the last piece of orange antique pottery has been isolated from humans and disposed of should this tiny issue even be considered.
With all the other sources taken care we’ll have only this little one left. The answer will be damming up every river we possibly can, cultivating hugh areas to provide bio-fuels (but without phosphate fertilizer, because that’s radioactive) and construction of millions of wind turbines. Of course, we’ll have to consider whether the concrete used in the construction of the wind turbines and dams might result in *more* radiation exposure. Trying to find a lower exposure method of power generation than nuclear energy is really setting the bar very very, perhaps impossibly, high.
This may not be feasible, however, and we’ll need to accept the tiny amount from nuclear energy as a trade off to protect us from the much larger sources.
If you are hell-bent on believing that ionizing radiation is dangerous at any level and needs to be kept to a minimum, there are many things you have reason to oppose, but nuclear energy isn’t one of them, or at least, is very low on the list, even to the point of being not worth dealing with until you have managed to rid the world of all radioactive consumer products, all coal burning, all natural gas burning, all granite construction and all bananas. Once you’re done doing that, then maybe we can talk about nuclear energy as a radiation source, but worrying about it now, or even considering it worth taking into account is not justifiable based on the numbers.
Being concerned about radiation exposure and focusing your energy on nuclear energy makes about as much sense as being concerned about cholesterol and therefore eating steak and fried chicken, rather than salad, because you’re concerned about the cholesterol in the salad dressing.
This entry was posted on Monday, January 11th, 2010 at 4:17 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Enviornment, Good Science, Nuclear, Obfuscation, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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